Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Is Bowie offering universal pre-k? Not exactly.

 By Mike Rauck

“There’s about to be universal pre-k in Bowie,” a Facebook user commented on a Bowie Living post about the future of the Bowie Ice Arena.  “Where’s the post about that? Spread the good news too. I’m so over this obsession with a(n) ice rink.”


The comment came days after Bowie Mayor Tim Adams issued a press release on his personal web page about a publicly funded pre-k program coming to Reid Temple Christian Academy in Glenn Dale. Adams described a historic pre-k partnership that will significantly expand pre-k access, “open to Prince George’s County residents, with a focus on residents of Bowie.”

Several local television stations published stories about the program.  Mayor Adams shared a WUSA Channel 9 story on his Facebook page with the headline, “Bowie first Maryland city to offer universal Pre-K.”  WJLA Channel 7 followed shortly with the headline, “One local Md. jurisdiction will be the first in the state to offer free universal Pre-K,” and it was posted to Facebook with a caption that said, “One jurisdiction will become the first in the state to offer universal Pre-K to all residents!”

News 4 Prince George's County Bureau Chief Tracee Wilkins published a very different report about a free pre-k program with 40 seats available to county residents.


The claims about the pre-k program were contradictory and hard to believe.  Was universal pre-k coming or was it 40 new seats?  Implementing universal pre-k would be a heavy lift at any time, and county and state budgets are currently under immense pressure.  Schools are run at the county level - not by the city. Universal pre-k hasn't been discussed at any recent city council meetings, and Adams' press release referred to a partnership with “the office of the Mayor.” Why would a school in Glenn Dale focus on Bowie residents? The reports were very confusing.


I reached out to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), Prince George's County Public Schools (PGCPS), Mayor Adams, and Reid Temple Church.  I let them know that I was writing a story to clear up the confusion created by conflicting news reports about publicly funded pre-k in Bowie.  I also reached out to City of Bowie staff.

I never heard back from Mayor Adams or Reid Temple.

I was able to determine that the news stories were related to a new pre-k program at Reid Temple Christian Academy in Glenn Dale that's offering 40 publicly funded pre-k seats to county residents for the 2020-21 school year - one class for three-year-olds and one class for four-year-olds. Eligibility for the program is based on household income or participation in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).

According to MSDE, the program is a partnership between the Maryland State Department of Education, Reid Temple Christian Academy, and Prince George's County Public Schools.  MSDE is providing the funding in the form of a one-year $400,000 grant made possible by state and federal funds. Reid Temple is responsible for running the program, and PGCPS has oversight responsibilities.

Funding for the program is not guaranteed for future years.

City staff told Bowie Living that the city is not part of the partnership.  The City of Bowie does not have responsibility for funding or operating schools for city residents.

The claims that Bowie is offering universal pre-k are false, and the assertion that the new Reid Temple program focuses on Bowie residents is not supported by the grant application that Reid Temple Christian Academy filed with MSDE.

Mayor Adams bears some responsibility for the misinformation. Although the mayor's press release gets many of the details about the Reid Temple program right, it exaggerates the program's links to the city.  The mayor also served as one of the primary sources for the WUSA and WJLA news stories, and he shared misleading information on his Facebook page about Bowie becoming the first city in Maryland to offer universal pre-k.

What's more concerning is that Mayor Adams announced plans to use city resources to support the expansion of the Reid Temple pre-k program to the exclusion of other area pre-k programs that have been serving city residents for decades. That's not only bad governance, but if those plans move forward, they have the potential to open the city to lawsuits.

Although the news about the 40 new pre-k seats at Reid Temple is encouraging, it must be put in the context of the broader effort to bring universal pre-k to the area.


What is universal pre-k?

Although the programs described as universal pre-k vary from one jurisdiction to the next, universal pre-k programs share these common characteristics:  publicly funded, free to parents, and wide-scale availability to residents.

Publicly funded pre-k in Prince George's County

Prince George's County Public Schools has a long-term goal to offer publicly funded pre-k education to all families in the county. Full implementation is difficult because it requires funding and classroom space - two things that are harder to come by in recent years.

The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) also has a long-term goal to make publicly-funded pre-k widely available throughout the state.  Through MSDE's Division of Early Childhood, federal and state grant money has helped fund pre-k education in school districts across Maryland.  MSDE makes these funds available through grants referred to as Pre-K Expansion Grants.

PGCPS received $3.1 million in Pre-K Expansion grants from MSDE for the 2019-2020 school year - a fraction of the program's cost.

Despite funding and resource challenges, PGCPS offers pre-k at dozens of locations throughout the county.  Both half-day and full-day programs are available.  The seats are reserved for four-year-olds with some exceptions granted to children about to turn four.  Priority is given to families falling below certain income thresholds.

Publicly funded pre-k in Bowie

PGCPS has offered pre-k at different locations in the city for years.  According to an email sent to Bowie Living from PGCPS, a total of 160 publicly funded pre-k seats are currently being offered at the following locations in the city. 

  • Chapel Forge Early Childhood Center:  80 seats; 4 classes;  serves families in school boundaries for High Bridge ES and Pointer Ridge ES
  • Northview Elementary School:  40 seats; 2 classes; serves families in school boundaries for Northview ES
  • Rockledge Elementary School:  40 seats; 2 classes;  serves families in school boundaries for Rockledge ES, Yorktown ES, Whitehall ES and Tulip Grove ES


Pre-K Expansion Grants for non-public schools

In an effort to access additional classroom space and other resources, the Maryland State Department of Education issues Pre-K Expansion Grants to public charter schools, approved non-public schools, community-based child care programs, Head Start programs, and even home-based child care centers. When awarding grants, MSDE tries to achieve a mix of organization types and geographic locations. 

Grants are awarded to religiously affiliated organizations, but those organizations cannot include any religious activity during the 6.5 hour portion of the school day that's funded by MSDE.

Organizations accepting MSDE Pre-K Expansion Grant money must enter into a memorandum of understanding with the local school district to define the curriculum and other details of the program.  Grantees choose from a list of approved curriculum options.

How are Pre-K Expansion Grants awarded?

In order to be considered for a Pre-K Expansion Grant, an organization must submit an application to MSDE that explains how it will meet the grant goals and must provide supporting documentation to help verify that it meets the grant requirements.  All applications are then scored by multiple reviewers using a predetermined scoring methodology.  Grantees are selected based on a combination of score, geographic location, and organization type so that MSDE can vary the locations and types of programs.


Eligibility for the Reid Temple Christian Academy pre-k program

The new pre-k expansion program at Reid Temple is open to three-year-old and four year-old county residents only.  Any three year-old or four year-old student in the county with an Individualized Education Plans (IEP) or an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) is eligible regardless of family income.  Students without an IEP or IFSP are only eligible if they are part of a household that has income up to 300 percent of Federal Poverty Guidelines.

The Federal Poverty Guidelines vary by the number of persons in a household. According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services web site, a family of four making $26,200 or less is considered to be in poverty based on 2020 guidelines.  A family of four would have to be making $78,600 or less to be eligible for the pre-k expansion program at Reid Temple.

Status of the Reid Temple program

The memorandum of understanding between PGCPS and Reid Temple Christian Academy was signed earlier this summer, and applications are now being accepted.

The City of Bowie recently shared details on how families can apply.

Implementation of the program may be affected by COVID-19 concerns, and Reid Temple should be contacted for the latest status.

Does the Reid Temple program give priority to Bowie residents?

When asked about recruiting goals in the MSDE grant application, Reid Temple stated that it intended on “reaching families in our service area,” and “increasing the number of children in our community who are ready for kindergarten,” according to an MSDE spokesperson.  There was no mention of giving priority to Bowie residents.

An MSDE spokesperson did say that if more eligible applicants apply than the program supports, Reid Temple will be choosing which students are accepted to the program.

Is the City of Bowie involved in the Reid Temple pre-k partnership?

According to Mayor Adams' press release, the partnership that brought publicly funded pre-k seats to Reid Temple includes the “office of the Mayor,” which implies that the City of Bowie is involved in the program.

Reid Temple announced on Facebook that it is partnering with Bowie, Maryland.

However, city staff told Bowie Living that the city is not involved in the Reid Temple pre-k partnership.

The City of Bowie has a council/manager form of government, and city partnerships must be approved by the city council.  Additionally, cities following the council/manager structure do not have an “office of the Mayor.

Despite some claims that the city is involved in the partnership, those reports never included what the city's responsibilities to the partnership would be.

Do Bowie residents have universal pre-k?

City residents currently have 160 publicly funded pre-k seats offered by PGCPS with limited availability based on age and household income.  Bowie residents are also eligible to apply to programs offered by the following Pre-K Expansion Grant recipients in the county.

The age groups supported by these programs may vary by location, but the eligibility requirements are the same as the Reid Temple program.

Organizations offering pre-k classes funded by Pre-K Expansion Grants may also offer pre-k classes that require payment or tuition, so it's important that applicants specify that they are interested in the free publicly funded classes when applying.

These pre-k seats represent progress by the county and state officials over time, but it's hard to imagine anyone describing the availability to Bowie residents as “universal.

A governance concern for city government

According to Mayor Adams' press release, the mayor, “has assigned Bowie City Council Member Roxy Ndebumadu, the Council’s Liaison to the Education Committee, to coordinate with Reid Temple AME, Prince George’s County Public Schools, City staff, and the Bowie community to craft a strategic multi-year plan to move RELC (Reid Early Learning Center) into City limits and expand the program’s capacity towards the goal of universal Pre-K.

Regardless of the virtues of bringing additional publicly funded pre-k seats to the city, and regardless of quality of a Reid Temple Christian Academy pre-k education, the mayor's plan is a governance concern. Without debate, council vetting, and public input, Mayor Adams' plan assumes that the best way to increase publicly funded pre-k seats in the city is to support an expansion of the Reid Temple program.

A statement was read during the Citizen Participation portion of the July 13th city council meeting from Christin Vare, the Director of the St. Matthews Early Education Center in Bowie. Vare spoke of the importance of pre-k education, and she asked the mayor and city council to please consider expanding funding collaboration with pre-k programs to include schools that have been serving the Bowie community for decades.  She mentioned Holy Trinity, St. Pius, the Children's Centre, Cornerstone Christian Academy, and St. Matthews EEC.

If the city is favoring one pre-k program over another, that decision needs to be backed up by a policy that explains what makes a pre-k program eligible for city support.  If only one pre-k program is eligible for city support, that needs to be backed up by a competitive application and review process.  Any conflicts of interest need to be disclosed, including instances where a city official is a member of a church associated with a pre-k program seeking help from the city.

Implementing the mayor's plan without a pre-k policy will create liability concerns for the Bowie.

The Maryland State Department of Education is clearly picking some programs over others when it assigns Pre-K Expansion Grants, but that process is supported by a well-defined scoring methodology and a mission to vary grant recipients geographically and by organization type.  If asked, MSDE is prepared to answer why one program is selected over another.

During the August 3rd city council meeting, Mayor Adams sought support from the council to use city resources and communication channels to publicize the application process for 40 publicly funded pre-k seats at Reid Temple.  That's obviously something that would be very helpful to some residents, and the council unanimously agreed to the mayor's motion.

What the motion didn't include, however, was instructions to city staff to publicize the application process for the 160 publicly funded pre-k seats available to city resident through PGCPS.  It seems like such a small oversight, but it illustrates the lack of a pre-k policy, possible ignorance of the existence of the PGCPS pre-k seats, and the council involving itself in a mission where it hasn't traditionally been involved.

The future of publicly funded pre-k in Bowie

The primary impediments to having universal pre-k in the city are funding and classroom space.

It's unlikely that universal pre-k could be funded by the city, so county, state, and federal dollars will continue to be needed to expand the number of pre-k seats.

The MSDE Pre-K Expansion Grants initiative and the PGCPS pre-k program are equitable with their funds, spreading the benefits across their jurisdictions.  It's unrealistic to think that either program could be used to concentrate funding in Bowie - especially when there's greater need in other parts of the county and other regions of the state.

If city officials want to play a role in publicly funded pre-k programs, they should identify pre-k funding resources, and educate residents and area preschools on how best to obtain those resources.  Having multiple and varied institutions apply for Pre-K Expansion Grants might increase the chances for more publicly funded pre-k seats in the city.

Mayor Adams deserves kudos for bringing the issue of universal pre-k to the forefront, but he needs to work closely with the council, he needs to practice good governance, and he needs to be honest with Bowie residents.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Adams’ explanation of ice arena vote contains some false and misleading information

By Mike Rauck

Reasonable people can disagree about the Bowie City Council’s vote to cancel the Bowie IcePlex project, but it’s important to note that the explanation provided by Mayor Tim Adams for his vote contains some false and misleading information.

Adams claims that a 2013 feasibility study concluded that industry experts advised the city that local demand for ice facilities warranted spending no more than $10.66 million to construct a new ice arena. That’s not what the feasibility study concluded.

The study concluded that there was sufficient demand for two sheets of ice in the city, and the estimated cost for a facility seven years ago was $10.66 million.  The study did not say, as Adams claims, that the city should spend no more than $10.66 million.  The estimate was for high-level planning purposes at a time when the city was evaluating multiple indoor sports options.

The consultants who provided the estimate did not provide a cost range, and they did not indicate a list of assumptions that went into the estimate.  They did not say whether or not the estimate included costs for land acquisition, land improvements, and infrastructure improvements.

For comparison purposes, the same 2013 study estimated the cost of a 61,400 square-foot facility featuring five hardwood basketball courts at $7.58 million.  A 2018 feasibility study conducted by the city concluded that a much smaller two court facility would cost between $7.3 million and $12.9 million depending on the type of structure constructed.  The study evaluated air domes, tension structures, metal buildings, and brick and mortar buildings.

The conclusions of the 2013 feasibility study were presented to the Bowie City Council during a June 3, 2013 council meeting.  Video of that meeting is available on the city’s web site.

In the same letter where Adams erroneously criticizes the previous council for not taking the advice of industry experts, Adams makes a case for cheaply renovating the current Bowie Ice Arena by citing advice from a different industry expert - Black Bear Sports Group (BBSG).  According to Adams, BBSG criticized the Bowie IcePlex project, and the privately held company offered suggestions for how the existing Bowie Ice Arena at Allen Pond Park could be transformed into a world-class facility for less than $3 million.

The claim that the existing ice arena could be converted into a world-class facility for $3 million is ludicrous, and it gives reason to question Adams’ analysis.  The irony is that city residents have never sought world-class sports facilities.  Adams made an unfortunate choice of words.

The bigger issue is that Adams ignored previous studies of the state of the Allen Pond ice arena in favor of unvetted information contained in a letter from an industry expert who has a financial incentive to limit ice capacity in Bowie.

BBSG owns and operates multiple ice rinks, including the nearby two-sheet Piney Orchard facility in Odenton.  The two-sheet Bowie IcePlex could have drawn paying customers away from the Piney Orchard facility in favor of new facilities and a more convenient location.

It’s also important to note that as a private owner and operator of ice arenas, BBSG’s construction requirements may be very different than those needed for a municipal complex.  Private companies are likely to build rinks with an eye towards short term profits, and the city has an interest in creating a sustainable facility that will last for 50 or more years.

BBSG’s analysis of the current Allen Pond ice arena may be correct.  We don’t know.  But because there is a conflict of interest and because the analysis hasn’t been vetted, the information can’t be considered reliable at this time.

Although Adams can criticize the high cost of the Bowie IcePlex, the project did follow proper municipal governance, including independent third-party consultations, many open public hearings, a competitive bidding process for the construction contract, and transparency including a video library of related council meetings.  The same cannot be said about the BBSG letter, which, according to Adams, helped guide his decision to cancel the IcePlex project.

Every councilmember, including Adams, who voted against the IcePlex project stated this week that they support the Bowie ice community.  It’s clear, however, that none of those councilmembers know what that support will cost.  That’s something that should have been determined before the IcePlex project was canceled.

Yes, reasonable people can disagree about whether or not the Bowie IcePlex project should have been canceled, but it’s important that those decisions are guided by proper governance and vetted information.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Bowie Cancels Rink

By Mike Rauck

It’s possible that the people who write headlines for the Bowie Blade-News have a crystal ball that allowed them to predict the Bowie City Council’s early morning vote today to cancel the ice rink project.

In a 4 to 3 vote, the council approved a motion by District 2 Councilmember Dufour Woolfley that called for construction to stop at the Church Road site and for the contract with Costello Construction to be canceled.  The motion also called for city staff to begin evaluating the same Church Road site for a future indoor court facility that’s already in the city’s capital improvement program.  City staff were also instructed to begin evaluating options for the existing one-sheet ice arena at Allen Pond Park, including possible renovations and a public-private partnership.

The latest council meeting will likely be remembered as the longest and most contentious council gathering in the history of the city.

Both residents and non-residents submitted more than two hundred comments to be shared at the meeting, including 191 for the ice rink public hearing alone.  City Clerk Awilda Hernandez read comments for most of the nine-hour meeting that began at 8:00pm on Monday and ended at 5:00am Tuesday morning.

Council debate was tense at times, highlighted by a fiery diatribe by At-Large Councilmember Henri Gardner.  He hurled insults at other councilmembers and made the claim that some councilmembers had racial motivations behind their decisions to support cancelation of the ice arena project.

Mayor Pro Tem Adrian Boafo and District 4 Councilmember Roxy Ndebumadu offered similar reasons for supporting cancelation of the project.  They both indicated that their votes were fiscally responsible and reflected the wishes of the majority of their respective constituents.

According to an estimate by the city’s finance department, the city stands to lose approximately $7 million by canceling the project.  Woolfley insisted that despite that loss, the city should not continue to throw good money after bad on what would be the single most expensive project in the city’s history.

Mayor Tim Adams repeated his assertion that the ice arena project had to be canceled to prepare the city for expenses and lost revenue associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.  He made the argument that it’s important to look out 18 months or longer because the city will likely be dealing with the effects of the virus for a long time.

All four councilmembers who voted in favor of canceling the project said that they support the ice community and are in favor of exploring plans for the Bowie Ice Arena at Allen Pond Park.

At-Large Councilmember Ingrid Harrison disputed Adams’ claim that the ice arena project impacted the current and future financial stability of the city.  Harrison also expressed concern about possible lawsuits stemming from the cancelation.

District 1 Councilmember Michael Estève told the rest of the council that canceling the project would be premature without having additional information, and he warned that the cancelation was something that could not be reversed.  Estève indicated that he was willing to consider a pause in the construction to give the city some time to get more questions answered, including cost and options for the Allen Pond ice arena, and Estève is concerned that there are questions about the bond issuance and implications to the city’s AAA bond rating that haven’t been addressed.

The new ice arena facility has long been criticized as a money-loser project being built for non-residents, and Estève took a few minutes to challenge those concerns.  He pointed out that all Bowie facilities, including the senior center, the city gym, city parks, and the Bowie Ice Arena, are heavily used by non-residents.  Estève quoted a recent city study that showed that 60% of South Bowie Boys and Girls Club members using city facilities are non-residents.  The difference is that non-residents provide more than $200,000 in fees annually to offset expenses at the Bowie Ice Arena, and non-residents pay a tiny fraction of that amount in fees to support facilities like the Bowie City Gym.  As a result, ice facilities can recoup 80% or more of annual expenses by collecting user fees, and court facilities typically recoup about 16% of annual expenses through user fees.

Some citizen comments read during the council meeting were submitted by District 3 residents who are concerned about the proposed ice arena’s impact to traffic and safety along Church Road.  Based on the direction set by the council this morning, those concerns will likely switch to the impact of a court facility instead of an ice facility in the same location.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

History of the New Bowie Ice Arena Project

By Mike Rauck

Debate over the future of the new Bowie Ice Arena project reached a fevered pitch over the last couple of weeks as Councilmember Dufour Woolfley proposed that the council discuss the project’s future and Mayor Tim Adams penned an opinion piece claiming that financial impacts to the city related to COVID-19 make it necessary to stop the project.  An overview of the history of the project might be helpful to review at this time.

Although the project history described here is very detailed, it could have easily been twice as long.  A lot of attention was given to the origins of the project as those details are probably not as well known as the more recent events.

In the spring of 2012, the city council appropriated money for a feasibility study for the construction of an indoor sports facility.  The goal of the study was to evaluate the need, determine what activities the facility should support, and determine where the facility should be located.  After reviewing six proposals from consulting groups willing to conduct the study, the council selected The Sports Facility Advisory (SFA).

The SFA study was conducted in the spring of 2013.  Approximately 60 interviews were conducted with stakeholders including leaders representing various sports and organizations in the city.  A survey of sports users in the city was conducted, sites were evaluated, construction costs were calculated, and SFA created a report detailing financial options for the city.

The city advertised the online survey through its web site, the city’s Facebook page, and through the Alert Bowie system in April 2013.  A post on the Bowie Living Facebook page directed people to the survey as well.

More than 900 people completed the survey, including some non-residents who participate in Bowie sports.

SFA held a public briefing in May 2013 to present preliminary conclusions of the feasibility study and to provide an opportunity for public feedback.  The meeting was advertised on the city’s web site, the city’s Facebook page, Alert Bowie, and Bowie Living.

SFA delivered a lengthy report to the council at the end of May 2013, and the highlights of the feasibility study were presented during a Bowie City Council meeting during the first week of June 2013.  The council meeting is available for viewing on the city’s web site (as are all council meetings since November 2008).

The study made conclusions about demand, construction cost, annual revenue, and annual operating costs for four types of indoor sports facilities:  courts, swimming, ice, and turf.  Assumptions were made that the Bowie City Gym will remain operational if the city constructs a new court facility and the Bowie Ice Arena at Allen Pond Park will be shuttered if a new ice facility is constructed.
The study ranked the facility types based on need, construction cost, and operating cost in the following order from highest need to lowest:

  • courts (five basketball courts reconfigurable as six volleyball courts)
  • aquatics (50 meters by 25 yards)
  • ice (one Olympic-size rink and one NHL-size rink)
  • turf (two 200’ x 100’ turf fields, with four batting cages that can be setup on the turf as needed).

The rankings assumed implementation of new fee structures, SFA’s understanding of the city’s priorities, and the city’s willingness to pay for construction cost and annual net operating costs.

Each facility type represented unique challenges.  The construction cost of the proposed aquatic center was the lowest, but it had the highest annual net operating loss.  The construction cost of the proposed two-sheet ice arena was the greatest, but it had the lowest annual net operating loss because of the fees that groups in the ice community are willing to pay.  The construction cost of the turf facility was the second lowest, but demand was not high enough to keep the facility utilized during the entire year.  Staff requirements for the city to operate courts would have to nearly double because any new courts could not be co-located with the courts in the existing Bowie City Gym.

SFA estimated construction cost based on work starting in 2015, and councilmembers acknowledged that the cost were higher than they had anticipated.

All facility types would result in the city having to pay net operating costs annually as user fees would not cover operating expenses.  Neither the courts, ice sheets, aquatics center, or indoor turfs would be self-sustaining.

SFA discussed the possibility of using public-private partnerships to fund and operate some facilities – a trend that was growing in 2013.  The proposed ice facility represented the greatest opportunity for a public-private partnership due to the high fees that the ice community is willing to pay.

At the time of the June 2013 presentation, the city was facing an estimated $700,000 expense above and beyond standard operating costs to keep the existing ice arena at Allen Pond Park operational. The declining state of the current ice arena would continue to influence the council’s decisions for years to come.

Five possible locations for a new indoor sports facility were included in the 2013 study:

  • Annapolis Road (bordered by Old Annapolis Road, the Pope’s Creek train track, and Grenville Lane). This 61.5 acre site is in an ideal location, and it’s owned by the city of Bowie.  Geographic features would make development of the property very expensive, and it’s possible that environmental concerns might prevent the project from being approved.
  • Glen Allen Park (off Mitchellville Road).  The site is in an ideal location, and it’s owned by the city of Bowie.  The size of the property would only allow one type of facility to be constructed (i.e., could not be the site of a combined court and ice facility).
  • Green Branch (behind Rip’s):  The site is owned by Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning, and it has access issues that the county has been unsuccessful in resolving.
  • Mitchelville Road (current lacrosse fields):  This property is owned by the Prince George’s County Board of Education, and it’s intended to eventually be the location of a new high school in the city.
  • Race Track:  The Bowie Race Course is not currently available, but it could become available to the city at a later date.

At the end of the June 2013 council meeting, city staff was looking for direction. The council asked city staff to review the feasibility study in greater detail, and to involve the city’s Community Recreation Committee and Financial Advisory Committee in the process.

Mayor G. Fred Robinson (mayor from 1998 to 2019) concluded the meeting by issuing a statement about the city’s long history of commitment to quality recreation facilities.  “The one thing that I’m comfortable with,” Robinson said, “is that in this city, there is strong consensus to build and maintain quality recreation, because there is a strong commitment.  It’s part of the core of the city. It’s part of the dynamic of the city. It’s part of what brings and holds the city together.”

Nearly a year later during a May 2014 budget worksession (also available for viewing online), the council announced that the focus for an indoor sports facility had been narrowed down to several options including a no-build option, an ice-only facility, a courts-only facility, a combined facility, and an option where an ice-only facility was built first followed by courts.

Although it was clear why an indoor turf facility was dropped from consideration, there’s been a lot of debate about why an ice facility was prioritized over an aquatics facility, even though the feasibility study ranked an aquatics facility higher.  The following were some of the points discussed at the time.

  1. An aquatics facility had a higher annual net operating cost that the city would have to fund.  Estimates at the time were approximately $500,000 per year.
  2. The question of whether or not the city should build an aquatics center had previously been put to referendum, and the public failed to support it.  Some people believe that the referendum question was to blame as it asked whether residents would be willing to pay for a tax increase to fund an indoor aquatics facility.
  3. Although the feasibility study identified a high demand for an aquatics center, membership in local swim clubs in Bowie was declining at the time, suggesting to some that the demand might not be as high as the feasibility study suggested.
  4. The city was continuing to experience maintenance issues at the Bowie Ice Arena at Allen Pond Park.  If the city wanted to continue offering ice facilities to the public, ice had to be prioritized over aquatics.

During a May 19, 2014 council meeting, the FY2015 budget was approved with a recommendation for a combined ice and courts facility.  This recommendation continued to be included in subsequent annual budgets, but the project was delayed because the city had trouble identifying a site that could accommodate the combined ice and court facility.

In June 2016, the city purchased a 20-acre site on Church Road near the Route 50 overpass for the proposed indoor sports complex.  The size of this parcel of land was believed to be large enough to support a dual-use ice and courts facility.

In June of 2017, city staff announced that revised construction cost estimates for the indoor sports complex were much higher than previously calculated.  Construction costs were now estimated to be $37 million.

After much debate and a series of public hearings, the council decided to move forward with one of the original options that the council considered in 2014:  an ice facility first followed by the construction of additional courts at some time in the future.  The council believed at the time that the Church Road site would be able to accommodate courts in the future as an addition to an ice facility.

Based on councilmembers’ comments at the time, the following were some of the arguments that influenced the council’s decision.

  1. Costly maintenance issues continued to plague the Bowie Ice Arena at Allen Pond Park, thus putting an ice facility at a higher priority.
  2. Major renovations of the existing ice arena would cost almost as much as a new single-sheet facility.
  3. Major renovations of the existing ice arena or construction of a new ice arena at Allen Pond Park would displace the ice community for a year or longer, potentially disrupting the revenue stream that net cost estimates were relying on.
  4. Cost of a single-sheet ice facility was almost as expensive as a dual-sheet facility.
  5. Dual-sheet facilities had an advantage over single-sheet facilities because the facility could host tournaments.  The tournaments would help with cost recovery as well as attracting customers to area hotels and restaurants.
  6. Although there was demand for additional court space, the city was already offering some indoor courts at the Bowie City Gym.

The following are some of the arguments that were raised against prioritizing ice over courts.

  1. There was a great demand for more court time.
  2. Some court proponents felt that they hadn’t been included in the indoor sports facility planning process.
  3. There was a belief that many users of the ice arena at Allen Pond Park were not Bowie residents.
  4. Some people believed that ice facilities draw users from a wider area, and therefore should be constructed and maintained by a regional entity like the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission.
  5. At least one councilmember expressed doubt that the city should be in the business of providing indoor sports facilities given the overlap with the mission of the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission.
  6. Some people felt that building such an expensive facility was fiscally irresponsible.  The estimated cost for the indoor ice arena was higher than any previous capital improvement project in the city’s history.
  7. Some people expressed concern about the traffic impact to Church Road.
  8. Some people felt that a project of that size should be put to referendum.

Although the council as a whole moved forward with the project over the two years following the decision to proceed with an ice-only facility first, the debate didn’t stop.  Lower cost alternatives were discussed, including a “bubble” facility to host ice and courts.

The city conducted a study during this time to determine the residency of members of user groups using existing ice, court, and outdoor field facilities in the city.  The study has been used by some to conclude that the majority of users of the existing ice arena are not Bowie residents. The reality is much more complicated.

The residency analysis was restricted to user groups that rent ice, court, and field time, and it did not include people who participate directly in city run programs, including lessons, open skate times, and camps.

The study also shows that non-residents are frequent users of other Bowie sponsored sports facilities including courts and fields.  According to the results, roughly 40% of South Bowie Boys & Girls Club members using city facilities are city residents, and roughly 55% of Bowie Boys and Girls Club members are city residents.

The “glass half empty” point of view is that the city is building facilities that are heavily used by non-residents.  The “glass half full” point of view is that non-residents are subsidizing city owned facilities, making it possible for the city to make these services available to its residents.

Although most user groups for all city owned facilities are split about 50/50 between Bowie residents and non-residents, two outliers exist.  About 80% of the 500-member Bowie Hockey Club using the Bowie Ice Arena are non-residents, and about 80% of the 400-member Woodstream Christian Academy using courts are non-residents, according to the study.  It’s important to note, however, that the Bowie Hockey Club contributes about $274,000 annually in fees to the Bowie Ice Arena, and roughly $219,000 of that is coming from non-residents.  User groups paying for court time pay a tiny fraction of that amount.

In 2018, the council allocated money for an indoor court feasibility study.  The council was presented with options for one court and two court facilities.  Multiple public-private partnerships were explored, including proposals by the Greater Mt. Nebo Church and the Community Housing Initiative.
The council gave residents whiplash in June and July of 2019 as one month they voted to put the new ice complex up to a referendum vote, and the next month they overturned that decision and selected Costello Construction to build the arena.

In the fall of 2019, the council approved a contract with Costello Construction and a municipal bond issuance to pay for the project.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held in October 2019.

Final permits were issued in early 2020 after the city agreed to partially fund a new traffic light at the intersection of Church Road and Fairview Vista Drive.  County officials hoped that the traffic light would improve safety along that stretch of church road.  A 14-year-old boy was hit by a car and killed at that intersection in June 2019.

Construction on the new ice arena began in March 2020.

During a council meeting in early May, Councilmember Dufour Woolfley proposed a discussion about the future of the ice arena project.  He later explained in an email to constituents that this would give new members of the council a chance to voice their opinions on the project. Four new members joined the council last November, including Mayor Tim Adams, At-Large Councilmember Ingrid Harrison, District 3 Councilmember Adrian Boafo, and District 4 Councilmember Roxy Ndebumadu.

Last week, the Bowie Blade-News published an opinion piece by Mayor Tim Adams in which Adams said that the ice arena project must be stopped due to financial concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Adams piece lacked detail, and his points relied on his own analysis of financials and the Costello Construction contracts.

As of this writing, two councilmembers (Esteve and Gardner) have publicly voiced support for allowing the new ice arena project to continue, two councilmembers (Woolfley and Adams) have voiced support for canceling the project, and three councilmembers (Boafo, Harrison, and Ndebumadu) have not yet taken a public stance.

The next chapter to this story will be written during the council’s Monday, May 18th meeting.  Stay tuned.

Construction photos c/o Costello Construction:

Thursday, April 23, 2020

First bottle bill in the nation?

By Mike Rauck

In July 1970, three months after the first Earth Day celebration, the Bowie City Council passed an ordinance requiring all bottled beer and soda purchased in the city to be sold in returnable bottles. This was an attempt by city officials to address a growing litter problem in Bowie.

The city changed the ordinance in early 1971 to instead require refundable deposits on all beer and soda bottles and cans. The modified ordinance matched state legislation being considered in Annapolis at the time.

Bowie’s bottle bill was scheduled to go into effect on April 1, 1971, but area liquor dealers and soft drink bottlers challenged the city’s ordinance in court. The issue was finally settled in 1975 when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that municipalities like Bowie can implement and enforce legislation requiring consumers to pay refundable deposits on beverage containers.

The Bowie City Council chose to delay implementation of the bottle bill in 1975. The thinking at the time was that the bill would not be as effective unless the county or other nearby jurisdictions implemented similar legislation. Former Bowie Mayor Leo Green and some of his fellow councilmembers who passed the legislation were no longer on the council in 1975.

Although bottle bill legislation was considered multiple times by Maryland lawmakers, bottle and can deposits have never been required in Bowie.

Oregon passed bottle bill legislation in May 1971. The Oregon bill is frequently cited as the first bottle bill in the nation, but it was passed after the Bowie City Council passed similar legislation. Bowie’s ordinance, of course, was never implemented.

Former Bowie Mayor Leo Green is pictured here in November 1970 giving the thumbs-down sign in response to the 10,000 cans and 800 bottles collected by Bowie High School students along city roadways over a two-day period. The students were members of an ecology group organized at the high school by Don Murphy, a government teacher at the school.

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, and the Bowie City Council has proclaimed 2020 to be Earth Year in Bowie.

To recognize the anniversary, check out the city's 100 Acts of Green and see what you can do to help the environment, your health, your neighbors, and to save a little money while at it. Many of the acts are perfect for social distancing because they involve actions in your own home or being outside away from crowded areas. Click here to see the city's 100 Acts of Green.